One Year at Blue Cliff Monastery


By Nhu-Mai Nguyen

The following is a letter that I submitted to the monastic sisters as part of my self Shining Light, which is a practice where we reflect on our strengths and weaknesses.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Blue Cliff Monastery snow
My one-year-at-Blue Cliff celebratory picture! I am wondering why there isn’t any snow, considering that there was a snow storm blowing by the area.

Dear Thay, dear lay sisters and monastic sisters:

As I write this letter, I am aware that in just a few days, I will be able to celebrate my one year anniversary of arriving to Blue Cliff to begin my internship program. This year has been a rich journey, and as I reflect on my experience, I see that I have grown in many ways of acceptance: learning to accept myself, learning to accept others, and learning to accept the presence of suffering in my life.

When I first arrived, I had an idealistic image of what a good mindfulness practitioner looked like: they always walked gracefully, always spoke calmly, and always had a peaceful smile on their face. Of course this view of the “perfect” practitioner was disillusioned–because we has human beings experience such a wide spectrum of emotions, and we are a products of many collective habits–and this wrong thinking caused me to judge myself every time I acted in such a way that wasn’t in line with my vision of successful mindfulness practice.

“Why am I still depressed?! What am I doing wrong?! Why do I still eat emotionally/seek validation from others/say unkind things out of anger?! Am I practicing poorly?” These thoughts consistently flooded my mind, causing me to judge myself and thus judge others. However, as time passed at the monastery, I began to gain perspective on what mindfulness really looked like. I could still be fully present while feeling anger toward someone.

This new perspective on mindfulness–that it doesn’t have to look a certain way–helped me soften the expectations I had of myself.

I could still be fully present while serving myself a second heaping plate of food that I absolutely didn’t need because I was already full. I could still be fully present while rushing off to the next activity, anxious to be on time. This new perspective on mindfulness–that it doesn’t have to look a certain way–helped me soften the expectations I had of myself. “I’m doing fine. Actually, I’m doing more than fine, I’m doing spectacularly! Waltzing through life with tremendous style.” This attitude also softened my expectations of others so that I could more easily accept them.

I have also learned to feel okay when I am in conflict with others. At the beginning, I noticed that whenever I was in a conflict with someone, I instantly judged that the world was coming to an apocalyptic end and would want to immediately fix the situation. But sometimes acting too hastily, without calming myself, made the situation worse.

I have learned to feel okay when I am in conflict with others.

So I learned to be with conflict a little better, to use my breathing to hold that uncomfortable sensation in my body, and to understand that conflict didn’t necessarily mean that there is something inherently “wrong”. We simply had two people with different needs. I also can see that we can cultivate love and understanding for each other while still being in conflict at the same time. Conflict, when handled in a healthy way, can actually bring more trust, insight, and connection in a relationship. It can mean that we’re being more honest and vulnerable with each other.

mindful mandala art project in the works

Lastly, I learned to better accept the role of suffering in my life, and thus more deeply understanding the meaning of happiness. Happiness wasn’t necessarily the absence of suffering… that for happiness to be present, suffering must also be present. If life was a painting and happiness were the color white and suffering the color black, I would need both light and darkness in order to paint any kind of picture. And why stop with a black and white picture? If I was a skillful artist, I could allow many intensities and shades of colorof reds, yellows, greens, and bluesto come into my life in order to create a richly colored tapestry. I need the darkness in order to understand the light. I need many colors and experiences in order to create a beautiful portrait of my life.

Perhaps one encouragement I would like to offer myself is to be more kind and generous toward myself. Out of all the people in the world who I’d like to be kind to, I should be kindest to myself. So I would like to offer myself more rest, more creative adventure, and more positive thinking. Another encouragement would be to not compare myself to others.

One encouragement I would like to offer myself is to be more kind and generous toward myself.

Whether it be comparing my practice, my appearance, my career, or even the amount of food I put on my plate… when I am able to simply focus on myself, honor my own needs, and recognize that the needs of others may be different, I am able to relax and live more harmoniously. I am on the right path, and you are on the right path too. Though we may have different journeys, we are going in the same direction.

Nhu-Mai Nguyen is a member of the Order of Interbeing, with the name True Garden of Practice. She is currently transitioning out of Blue Cliff Monastery and would like to focus her studies on the creative & performing arts, spending time with her family, and organizational leadership. This article was taken from her blog, which you can read more here.

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